A question of joy…

“You know, the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death. When their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the guards asked two questions.
Their answers determined whether they were able to enter or not.
‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’”

The Bucket List (2007)

Not bad questions are they? Together they might sum up the whole of the deeper truth of human aspiration. There is no mention of what car you managed to acquire, nor the level of material success you achieved in your life. Not pleasure, not even happiness… Just joy.

Like any word pertaining to our perception of emotion, the definition of joy is a difficult one. The dictionary attempts to define it by using superlatives of other emotions, yet those feelings are personal and their experience both subjective and subject to causative events in our lives.

Joy is something different somehow, transcending reactive emotion and welling up from a deep place, flooding the being from without and within like a clear, sparkling stream of bubbling, laughing Light. Yet though we seek the words, there are none that encompass it. Those who feel it will know it, those who have yet to feel its touch have joy to come.

It is a strange emotion, if emotion it truly is. Its touch comes in a single, blazing moment, yet the light it sheds seems to linger a lifetime, untarnished by sorrow or pain, undiluted by the cares of everyday. Once there it takes up home in the heart and whilst the surface of the mind and emotions may feel the storms and be battered by our very human lives, the kernel of joy seems to become an eternal flame, a sanctuary light at the very core of being. It is always there, underlying the ripples and tumult of emotion, no matter how terrible life and events may appear. Its presence is not dimmed by them. For this reason perhaps we might hesitate to call joy an emotion… and see it instead as a grace.

Joy comes when we are open to the full experience of life. It may touch you when you stand in a summer meadow and see the sky arcing over the hills, when you hold a newborn child, when you stand drenched and laugh at the rain clouds or when your heart feels the touch of the divine… for each of us it is different, unique in its beauty. Once felt, it never leaves, though we may choose to shut it out, turn our backs and walk away.

The second question is curious, ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’ It is not something we can give to others through choice, no matter how hard we try. It cannot be bought, gift wrapped or engendered no matter how desperately we might like to think it possible. We can, perhaps, consciously create the circumstances in which joy might be found through our actions, through our empathy, kindness and love for each other, yet we cannot be the sole cause of joy. It is akin to alchemy where the presence of certain elements can cause profound change, bringing something into being through our own being, through who we are, that may enable a response in joy from another. Perhaps it can be likened to music… where a simply melody can be picked out on a single instrument, but the full glory of the symphony can only be heard when the orchestra plays in harmony. Then the music lifts you and carries you beyond yourself to beauty.

What would you answer to those two guardians of the otherworld should they ask those questions? ‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’

Patterns in the night

Image: European Space Agency & NASA  Acknowledgements:  Project Investigators for the original Hubble data: K.D. Kuntz (GSFC), F. Bresolin (University of Hawaii), J. Trauger (JPL), J. Mould (NOAO), and Y.-H. Chu (University of Illinois, Urbana)  Image processing: Davide De Martin (ESA/Hubble)  CFHT image: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope/J.-C. Cuillandre/Coelum NOAO image: George Jacoby, Bruce Bohannan, Mark Hanna/NOAO/AURA/NSF
Pinwheel Galaxy Image: ESA/Hubble

I couldn’t sleep. I’d gone to bed sleepy, read until I could read no more, then snuggled down expecting the inner lights to go out within minutes. An hour later I was still waiting… and wide awake. It might have had something to do with the discomfort in my hands. Nothing to do with typing of course… not possible. I gave in and got up, heading for hot milk and more of the damnable painkillers. I wasn’t best pleased about the whole affair as I need to be up by six at the latest, Sunday or not, and it had been after midnight when I had finally gone to bed in the first place.

The previous night it had been the wind; gales howling outside. It is odd, I have no qualms about being high on a hilltop in the wind, buffeted by gusts and struggling to stay upright. That I enjoy. But I don’t like the noises the house makes in a gale. I hadn’t particularly cared for the creaks and groans of the trees either when Ani and I had been out for our walk in the wood. But I had slept as soon as the rain began to batter the windows. That I find soothing.

It is strange the associations we make with sensory impressions and how deeply they are ingrained and affect behaviour. The smell of candlewax I find both comfortable and uplifting. The sound of rain on an umbrella is happy… and on canvas the memories of camping trips and laughter come back. The list is endless…

I was thinking about it when I was cuddling my granddaughter. The small sounds of a baby seem to trigger the competence of motherhood again. The body knows what to do…how to lift and hold, how to rock and calm. Probably with far more confidence now than when the skills were first learned. The smell of paint reminds fingers what to do to create an image. The touch of flour tells them how to make pastry. The sound of a waltz reminds the feet how to dance.

I wondered how much our memory is rooted in the physical. All of it in some ways, as we can only experience through the senses. We know there is muscle memory, a pattern known to the body that it can repeat with increasing ease and accuracy as we learn new skills. Then we add the overlay of emotion, of course… a context that frames and defines each memory and colours our perception each time they are triggered. It is all part of the constant programming that builds up the layers of individuality that make us who we are.

Our experiences of the world are pretty limited really… limited by the portals of the senses themselves as to how we can perceive. Yet even if we experience the same event, emotion will make our perception of it different for each of us. A lifetime of such differences makes each of us a unique combination… individuals.

Andromeda Galaxy. Image: NASA

It shouldn’t be a surprise really, that pattern of infinite possibility born of limitation is all around us. Nine numbers can go on indefinitely producing other numbers that are unique unto themselves. Twenty six letters of the alphabet combine to make over a million words in English alone…three primary colours combine with light and shadow to produce millions of tints, hues and shades…seven notes create every song ever sung, every symphony played…

It is within this limitation itself that harmony is established. Paradoxically their very restriction creates the relationship between them that permits harmony, dissonance and growth and gives their distance both meaning and beauty as they spiral outwards towards infinity, allowing us to trace their patterns and begin to know them.

Within ourselves the five senses allow us to ‘harmonise’ too, understanding each other through the empathy of common experience. Seven billion humans alive today, have common ground through five shared senses. Untold numbers of other creatures share those senses too, and by their presence or absence their experience is defined. Yet every single one of us is unique, perhaps solely because of the thoughts and emotions with which we respond to those experiences. The jury is out on which of those two come first… whether emotion gives rise to thought or vice versa. I’m not sure they are separable or separate, regardless of precedence. Perhaps they are the manifestation of the same process on a different arc of the spiral.

Looking out of the door, open to the night at the insistence of the dog, I look up at the stars; visible traces of our own spiral galaxy, and wonder of what it too may be a part… what its relationships may be to other galaxies… what harmonies might be brought into being out there in the blackness… Billions of point of light. From here they all look pretty much the same and yet I can discern the patterns of the constellations; remember their stories and mythology… know that man is already out there exploring…

My senses have taken me from pain to infinity; my thoughts have travelled the universe, through both the inner uniqueness of man and the vast wonderment of space. My emotions have spiralled from annoyance to awe… all in the time it took to recognise a pattern in the night.

animation by brian0918™
Part of a DNA double helix